Thursday, October 17, 2013


WENDY WASSERSTEIN IS BEST KNOWN as a playwright. Her 1988 play The Heidi Chronicles won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award, the Drama Desk Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle. The Tony was the first ever awarded to a female playwright. Her subsequent play The Sisters Rosensweig was then nominated or won almost all of the same prizes. Over her career, she had at least ten plays appear on and off Broadway.

But despite theater being her home, Wasserstein also wrote in almost every other form available. She wrote a movie, a novel, essays, memoirs, books of non-fiction, teleplays, and, of course, a children's book. Pamela's First Musical is, no surprise, about theater. Illustrated by Andrew Jackness, the set designer for Wasserstein's play Isn't It Romantic?, Wasserstein wrote Pamela in the hope that "[my] book would inspire children to fall in love with musicals in the same way [I] had." Dedicated to her niece Pamela (who was in high school at the time the book was published), it tells the story of Pamela's whirlwind ninth birthday, when her Aunt Louise takes her into New York to see her first musical.

AUNT LOUISE MIGHT just as well be called Auntie Mame. She is a clothing designer who goes around saying "Ooooooo, dahling." "(You can tell whether Aunt Louise designed your blue jeans because they are all signed Oooooooh, Dahling on the back pocket.)" While "all of Pamela's friends at school knew grown-ups who went into the city every day to work...Pamela's aunt Louise actually lived there." She also seems to know everybody who is anybody.

After a stop back at her apartment to change "out of her driving clothes into her theater clothes," Aunt Louise drags Pamela to the Russian Tea Room. "'The Tea Room is simply the place to have lunch before your first musical.'"

There they run into the world-famous dancer Bearish Nureyjinsky, who is the first in a list of theatrical celebrities with oddly familiar names that Pamela meets. At the theater, there are the stars Nathan Hines Klines and Mary Ethel Bernadette, the producer Mr. Bernie S. Gerry, choreographer Miss La Tuna, composer Mr. Finnsical, book writers Betty and Cy Songheim (with dogs Roger and Heart), set designer Candita Ivey Zippers, and Jules Gels, the light designer. (Pamela also gets the usher Gladys's autograph on her Playbill.)

Of course, Pamela is entranced with the play. It tells the generic love story, of Billy and Ginger falling in love just before World War II, divided by the war, but reuniting in the South Pacific where Ginger's friend rescues Billy from pirates. Okay, so maybe that last part isn't so generic. The whole thing ends with "a reprise of Pamela's favorite song," and a standing ovation.

After meeting the stars, "the old stage door man waved to Pamela to come stand onstage in the empty house. 'This is the ghost light,' he explained. 'This means the theater always stays lit for all the people who ever performed here. It also means you can come back anytime.'"

That night Pamela recreates the play at home with her dolls before falling asleep and dreaming of "producing, writing, choreographing, designing, and directing hundreds of dancing girls, parades of tapping men...and a cast of thousands, maybe millions."

LIKE AUNT LOUISE, Wendy Wasserstein knew everybody. The back cover of Pamela's First Musical is blurbed by Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury, Kevin Kline, Glen Close, Cy Coleman, Chita Rivera, Carol Channing, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Gregory Hines, Bernadette Peters and others. But despite knowing theater, and knowing everybody, Wasserstein found she didn't know children's books. In an essay for The New York Times about the book tour for Pamela's First Musical, she wrote, "When I look back on my first foray into children's literature, it seems an act of complete naivete and hubris at once." First, she is surprised how similar the children's book business is to theater "in all its ambition, difficulty and quirkiness":
"The boffo book chains of the Barnes & Noble and Borders variety appear to be the Broadway of children's books departments, complete with sets, lights and sizable audiences. There are even over-the-title stars like "Eloise," "Madeline," "Clifford"; and of course the proven box-office talents of Maurice Sendak, Faith Ringgold and Lane Smith."
As she continues to tour she learns that "touring with a children's book required acting, teaching and stand-up skills beyond my playwright's training." It didn't help that, out of town, when she asked audiences of children if they had seen any musicals, only about a quarter of them had if she was lucky. It wasn't until she was back in New York, where "even the boys like musicals [and] the stars of "Pamela's First Musical," Nathan Hines Klines and Mary Ethel Bernadette, are immediately recognizable," that she felt comfortable with the crowd.

WITH MODERN PICTURE BOOKS like Pinkalicious and Fancy Nancy getting adapted into musicals, it is only natural that a picture book about musicals got the musical treatment. Sometime around the book's 1996 release, lyricist David Zippel (who wrote the lyrics for Disney's Hercules and Mulan) “called [Wasserstein] up and said, ‘let’s do a television movie of it.'" Wasserstein liked the idea, and they enlisted Cy Coleman, the three-time Tony winning composer of Sweet Charity, City of Angels and The Will Rogers Follies, who had blurbed the picture book. In 1998, Playbill announced that the piece would be an ABC Sunday night movie.

In 2002, the first public offering of material related to the work was released when Cy Coleman included the main theme from Pamela's First Musical "It Started With a Dream" on his album of the same name. By that time, the musical had transformed into a stage show, a work-in-progress version of which was shown to industry people through Lincoln Center Theater in 2003. Pamela's age was changed, new subplots about prospective stepmothers and stepsisters were added, but at base it was still about going to see a musical with Aunt Louise. In October 2004 it was announced that Goodspeed Musicals would stage a version in 2005, but Cy Coleman died in November 2004, and the Goodspeed performance was cancelled. The team picked themselves up, and prepared for another performance at California Theaterworks in 2005, but Wasserstein's battle with lymphoma forced that production to be cancelled as well. Wasserstein died in early 2006 at the age of fifty-five.

David Zippel was not going to let that be the end of Wasserstein's last play. Pamela's First Musical was virtually complete when Coleman died. All it needed was a venue. At last, on May 18, 2008, Broadway Cares staged a concert of Pamela's First Musical at Town Hall. Kathy Lee Gifford, Joel Grey, Tommy Tune and many others made cameos. Proceeds benefited Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Wendy Wasserstein's own charity, Theater Development Fund's Open Doors Program. You can see a performance from that afternoon here.

The real Pamela Wasserstein was in attendance. She told Broadway Cares, “Really it’s Wendy, Cy and David’s tribute to Broadway...I know Wendy and Cy would be so happy. In fact, I just know they’re here!”

I CONSULTED Julie Salamon's biography Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein, Wasserstein's essay "Way Off Broadway With Pamela" from the June 30, 1996 edition of The New York Times, and Playbill's website. Much of the information regarding the musical Pamela's First Musical, as well as the photos from the Town Hall performance come from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS own website. The photo of Wendy Wasserstein is from Wikipedia.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

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